Like many romantic movies, Letters to Juliet features a heroine who women in the audience will likely want to emulate. Claire is witty, smart and sensitive. Her eyes are cerulean, her bone structure is extraordinary and she's effortlessly stylish. She's also unusually mature. I'm not sure how old Claire is supposed to be, but Vanessa Redgrave who plays her happens to be 73.
She is the most compelling reason to see Letters to Juliet, which reminded me, just the tiniest bit, of Sir Laurence Olivier's A Little Romance if only because both feature the talents of a legendary British actor and Italian settings that have you ready to book your seats on Alitalia this minute. The movie is too saddled by Hollywood conventions to be as charming as that 1979 classic few things could be but director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30 and, shudder, Bride Wars) provides a pleasant night out at the movies.
About those conventions: Claire is not technically the heroine. That role falls to cat-eyed Amanda Seyfried, an appealingly offbeat ingenue starring in her third movie to be released this year (and the only decent one, following Dear John and Chloe). She plays Sophie, a winsome fact checker at The New Yorker who goes to Verona on vacation with her fiancé Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal, impish and fun in a thankless role), a chef whose idea of an Italian holiday includes cheese, wine and olive oil tastings. Instead of getting fat and happy with cute Victor, Sophie is insane enough to be dreaming of wait for it journalism (and this isn't a period piece). In the back of her mind is the hope of a story that will elevate her to Susan Orlean-status with Bobby (Oliver Platt), the magazine's editor.
Sophie stumbles onto a bizarre real-life tradition in Verona, home of Shakespeare's Capulets and Montagues. Young women write letters to Juliet, seeking counsel in matters of the heart from Romeo's doomed love (presumably, although who knows? Some may ask for help with math) and deposit them under the prototype of her famous balcony. For decades a fleet of Juliet's "secretaries" have been answering these letters. While this phenomenon seems more suited to the pages of O, The Oprah Magazine, Sophie sees it as New Yorker material.
What brings her into contact with Claire is a letter left in the wall many decades ago when Claire was a teenager waffling over what to do about an attraction to a fabulous young Italian named Lorenzo. Sophie responds, as Juliet's secretary, urging her to follow her heart if it is still ticking and within days, Claire shows up in Verona with her grandson Charlie (Chris Egan, who bears a resemblance to fellow Aussie Heath Ledger). On our behalf, Claire expresses surprise that Claire was so easy to find, and Charlie supplies the reason: "We Brits tend to stay in our family homes." He, it must be said, is a supercilious young prig.
But Sophie and Claire are kindred spirits, romantics perfectly matched to take on a driving tour of Italy, looking for Lorenzo, wherever he might have landed. (Victor is still conveniently distracted with gourmet pursuits.) This trio takes to the road, traveling to various locations throughout Tuscany and the Veneto, where they find many Lorenzos, including one played by Redgrave's real-life husband Franco Nero. Along the way Charlie drinks some wine and loosens up a bit. His chemistry with Sophie lacks sexual spark and tends too much to the innocent to take seriously but the truth is, if I were Sophie, I'd take Charlie if only to get to his awesome grandmother. She'd made a fine mentor, the kind who might inspire greatness from an aspiring young writer.
Redgrave signed onto the movie shortly after losing her daughter, actress Natasha Richardson, in a ski accident. It's hard to know whether her grave, dignified but exceedingly kind performance is that much more poignant because we can guess at what she was going through. Regardless, I was surprised when I choked up during a scene where Claire quietly, lovingly brushes Sophie's hair. It's probably not the best indication of Letters to Juliet's romantic weight that the most heartfelt love affair here is the one between Sophie and Claire. But I'd take any woman in my life, ages 10 to 100, to Letters to Juliet and my guess is we'd both leave with a little Italian glow.